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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

“There's a mole, right at the top of the Circus. And he's been there for years.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first novel in John le Carre's Krala trilogy, is one of the greatest spy thrillers of the 20th century. The BBC's 1979 adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley is one of the finest pieces of television drama the corporation has ever produced. So is Tomas Alfredson's film adaptation equally as great?

The film opens in Soviet controlled Budapest where Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been sent by Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6, to get information on a mole. The mission is a disaster and Control is forced out along with his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Some months later, another British agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), discovers that there may be a high-ranking Soviet mole within the Circus, through a love affair with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer. Smiley is brought out of retirement to uncover a “rotten apple” at the heart of the Circus, without the knowledge of Circus leadership; Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an entire universe away from the high-octane worlds of Bond and Bourne. In the world of spy fiction, John le Carre has always been the anti-Ian Fleming. Fleming envisions the world of spying as pure male fantasy; exotic locations, gorgeous women, expensive suits and flash cars. By contrast, le Carre shows espionage for what it truly is; dull, tedious and ugly work that often goes unrewarded.

Alfredson's film recalls the 70s conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and All The President's Men. This is a mystery thriller rather than an action film. There are action scenes but they tend to be fleeting and brutal. The pace is very slow and deliberate. Much like is central character, this is a film that takes its time and is in no hurry to get where it is going.

Screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor make a good job of fitting le Carre's labyrinthine, flashback heavy narrative into two hours, changing this, condensing that or omitting this and that altogether. Even so, I thought that the film could've benefited from at least an extra half hour to give some of the other plot-threads more room to breathe. The final reveal, for example, comes off a little rushed and doesn't really have the impact it should have.

Bringing in the director of Let the Right One In, however, was a brilliant move. He paints an evocative and unflattering, but highly accurate, picture of 1970s London; the heart of a declining empire, long in denial about its place on the world stage. He's also managed to assemble a fantastic cast. It's virtually a who's who of British acting talent: Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, John Hurt and Kathy Burke. But the film belongs to Gary Oldman. Looking like he's off to a Michael Redgrave look-alike contest, he's simply superb as Smiley. I don't doubt that this will be the film to finally get him that long overdue Oscar nomination. Followed, I hope, by that long overdue Oscar win.

Three and half out of four Michael Redgrave look-alike contests.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Mark. I'll sure watch this film when it's shown in my country. You're quite right about the Oscar thing for Gary O. I truly think he was missed in Romeo Is Bleeding. He was superb in that film. He is really a versatile actor.


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